The Story of The Ethnographic Film Unit @ UBC

The Ethnographic Film Unit is one of several faculty run labs based in the Department of Anthropology at UBC. These labs are focussed around individual faculty members’ research interests and often support graduate student research and, when able, the research of other faculty and students on or even off campus. The place of laboratories as units of research is more common among our colleagues in sciences, but as our long-standing history of laboratories in the Department of Anthropology shows it is not something foreign to us.

The ethnographic film unit had its roots in a Forest Renewal of BC (FRBC) funded extension project in 2001 (FRBC was a provincial initiative dedicated to high quality applied research related to forest dependent communities and enhancing BC”s forestry sector). The objective of our extension project was to organize youth oriented workshops that drew upon a previous FRBC project (First Nations Involvement in the Forest Sector, 1998-1999). In the middle of planning the workshops we stumbled upon the idea of trying to create a more lasting impact then simply holding a youth workshop. What emerged became an integrated set of high school lesson plans, short documentaries, and a special issue published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education. A lot of mistakes were made with this first foray into filmmaking, but the experience laid the basis for what became a decade long collaboration between myself (C.Menzies), filmmaker Jennifer Rashleigh, and UBC alumna Dr. Caroline Butler.

Right from the start the Ethnographic Film Unit has been a production and research unit funded solely by research grants. While it would have been wonderful to receive some form of core institutional funding we have never been successful in securing dedicated funds to operate the ethnographic film unit. This creates a lot of administrative and logistical headaches. When funding is in place we gear up and more gets done; when there is no funding, things are mothballed and projects drag along waiting for the next grant. This kind of funding makes it difficult to provide any kind of more generalizable services beyond the immediate core of the unit. Just the same over the years the film unit has tried to meet the needs of others when possible and, as we were made aware of them.

The core idea behind the ethnographic film unit was a desire to link Indigenous sensibilities to anthropological practice in collaboration with members of participating communities. Elsewhere I have described the three kinds of films we have produced: traditional narrative documentaries , community videos, and video vignettes. These three very different kinds of filmic voice can be produced with relative ease today given the flexibility of digital editing, sampling, and resampling. This makes it possible for us to take a stance –in the form of our narrative documentaries and simultaneously release control of the narrative via a community driven video or even more radically by spinning vignettes free for others to sample, reorder, and contextualize according to their own whims.

The core team of Rashleigh, Buttler, and myself has led most of the film work we have produced, but not all of it. Dr. Jennifer Wolowic directed For Our Street Family  while a master’s student in the anthropology graduate program. Her film emerged, in part, out of her field school project in a course taught by Butler and myself in 2007 and was a central component of her MA research.

Dr. Denise N. Green, already an accomplished filmmaker her own right before she joined our doctoral program in Anthropology, embedded several films directed in collaboration with Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations communities exploring textiles, language,  identity and Aboriginal title while a member of the ethnographic film unit: Mamuu : To Weave/To WorkTsawaayuus – Rainbow GardensYacpanachshi-althin (Let’s go for a walk)Histakshitl Ts’awaatskwii (We Come From One Root).

The course Ethnographic Film Methods (ANTH 478) has been taught by members of the ethnographic film unit five times. Each time the students work in collaborative production teams to produce short ethnographic videos. The films from the first two sessions were produced as DVDs. A selection of films from the latter three sessions are posted to vimeo. The topics of the films range from local shopkeepers to organize gardening to performance and political activism. The course itself is unique in that rather than being an abstract critical theory or intensive technical course it is instead a hands-on production course tailored to those interested in learning through doing. Students are always advised though, that if they want detailed technical instruction or high theory they need to seek other courses as that is not part of this course.

Membership in the film unit is restricted to students working directly with myself or to those working with other faculty participants in the film unit.  Equipment is often shared with others as requested and where feasible rental charges are forgiven. Advice is always free. Collaborations are encouraged across units and projects.

The journey of the ethnographic film unit at UBC has not been smooth. With our start in a major extension project in the late 1990s through today we have needed to navigate the various reefs of inadequate funding, criticism of our Indigenous framework, misunderstandings of what we can do, and wonderful successes despite all of the obstacles. It is an amazing feeling to realize that with a bit of effort, a sense of the possible, courage to keep moving forward, one can indeed produce and direct films that resonate with one’s Indigenous community of account that challenges the whitestream dictates of a major settler research institution.


Friends, Research, and Misunderstandings

One of the things about being a public anthropologist, a professional actively engaged in public issues, is that people will at times misunderstand what I have said (usually by mistake, but occasionally deliberately). Normally that is okay. But some things are potentially damaging and hurtful.

Many years ago I was at a research workshop on fisheries and the organizers had representatives to speak from all sectors but First Nations. That’s a long story in and of itself, suffice to say I was annoyed. I wrote a position paper on the spot and latter revised it to a full length paper.

In that paper I mentioned the fact that anthropological fieldwork is based upon friend-like relations. I went on to comment that many anthropologists go on to form life long friendships with the people we have lived with and written about. But that wasn’t the focus of the paper and I went on to pick up the main themes leaving behind my reflections on friendship. But it is this thread that has been misunderstood and misrepresented.  

I have continued to tell students in my teaching that anthropology is based on friend-like relations. AND because of this one needs to be especially careful about ethical considerations. When anthropologists (students or professionals) come from privileged wealthy backgrounds and have been accustomed to getting their own way they may well misunderstand and take advantage of how people they have come to visit might respond to them. The student, especially, arrives into a situation that is temporary and ephemeral. They are in part more cultural tourist than ally (though most take on the role of ally).

I also talk about the importance of performatively marking out when one is being a researcher. I suspect this is a complicated idea. I mean, how can I mark off that moment when I am Charles the researcher from Charlie the cousin and friend? Ultimately they are the same person. My point is that given the friend-like relationship upon which anthropology is based one must be very clear about when one is actively collecting information – one needs to mark off these boundaries clearly and obviously. There are many areas wherein one can slip up. My good friend and colleague Caroline Butler and I have recently written a paper about this very issue using our personal research histories and our personal identities to understand and explain it.

I often caution students that they should not take advantage of their privilege and the friend-like relationships that lie at the base of anthropological research. In places where I am a member, like my home nation of Gitxaala, I am especially concerned about students who may prey upon the good nature of others. So much so that I no longer organize so-called field schools, but instead arrange research internships that are directly under Gitxaala’s control. This setup leaves no ambiguity in anyone’s mind as to who is in control (Gitxaala Nation), who owns the data (Gitxaala Nation) and who decides what can be published and when (Gitxaala Nation).

Despite one’s good intentions one can not control how others hear oneself. It saddens the heart to learn that someone may have misunderstood the idea of friend-like relations so grievously incorrectly as to think they were being told they couldn’t make friends. I feel even worse to think that someone may have understood that the idea of friend-like relations was being advocated to trick others into revealing deep rooted secrets in order to build a professional career. Such characterizations are misunderstandings of an analogy used to explain something.  “Friend-like relationships” are none of those things.

Anthropological research is built upon friend-like relationships. This is our strength and our weakness. We make friends because we care about the people we get to know over the years, if not decades of close association. When we are also insider researchers, like I am, it is even more the case since we are writing not only about our friends, but also about our families. This is a special responsibility that as an insider anthropologist we take on. We care about family, friends, and home in a way that no outsider, however well intentioned can do.

I grew up on the north coast of BC and have been privileged to continue to work along the coast in my home, with friends and families. It is a pleasure to write about my experiences and to reflect upon what I have learned through nearly six decades of life. Any sadness that accumulates along the way is cleansed in the certainty that I have a place to call home and that I know who my grandfathers are. It roots me to a deep history and a powerful future.